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Professor Len Sealy

Supplied to Archive July 2013

When I came to Cambridge as a postgraduate student, the Squire law library occupied one floor of the Cockerell building in the Old Schools: History had the other. We took over both floors when History moved to its new building on the West Road site. The Faculty shared the rest of the Old Schools with the University administration. But in the course of the Sixties both they and we grew, and bit by bit they took over all but two of our rooms, and eventually the lot. It was not always meant to be thus: for a long time there was a gentlemen's agreement and even some statements in writing that it was they who should move out and we who should stay. The main reason why the administration was keen to move was the difficulty of parking, both for university staff and visitors. Another was security – parts of the Old Schools had been occupied during at least two student protests (which got no further than the Squire), and there was apprehension that next time they might occupy the whole building. But eventually the decision was taken that it was Law which should go, and a new building put up for us. The next question was: but where?

The first scheme was that it should be erected on the Rifle Range site, away out on the Barton Road, and it was this site that was envisaged when the university proceeded to draw up specifications for the as-yet unplanned Law building. It was at about this time that I became chairman of the Faculty, and I remember speaking in the Senate House and pointing out that the University would need to provide some form of catering in the building because the site was so far from all the colleges and there were no shops or eating places in the locality. I don't think that this point was ever taken on board, though we did manage to get the Foster plan to include the space where eventually Nadia came to sell her sandwiches (but without any cooking or heating facilities). I remember also emphasising that we would have to be self-sufficient as regards lecture rooms because it was too far from the Sidgwick site and Mill Lane for us to come and go from Barton Road to use space there. When eventually it became possible to build the Law building on its present site we got all the lecture rooms that were in the original specifications, even though the reasons for this no longer applied! The specifications made no provision for a common room for the academic staff, but we did persuade the university that a staff library would be essential. So the plans included a library, which of course we now do use as a common room, but it doesn't have a tap or a sink so we can only have coffee using water from a jug and washing the crockery elsewhere!

The Rifle Range scheme had to be abandoned, I seem to remember that there was some problem over sewage. But a breakthrough came about because Caius agreed to swap some land which it owned adjoining the Sidgwick site (as it then was) for the parts of the Cockerell building that had been occupied by the Squire. There was no outright swap of the freeholds but instead each granted the other 350-year leases. A committee was set up chaired by Dr Kate Pretty to choose an architect, and seven firms were invited to submit plans which it was intended should be for a building to be shared by Law and Criminology. There was a maple tree in the middle of the site which posed a major problem. Three of the firms said that the site wasn't big enough to meet all the specified needs unless the tree came down, and this probably cost them votes. In the end, after three of the seven had submitted more detailed plans, the choice as made to appoint Sir Norman Foster's firm – a very happy decision.

Foster's plan proposed two buildings set at right angles, one (where Law now is) and a second, with a matching angled side, for Criminology to the north. Law was to be built first and, as it turned out, the second was never built. Instead, a different firm's plan for Criminology was chosen and built on a different part of the Sidgwick site. Under Foster's plan, the maple tree was spared, but it died anyway within a year or two!

It was a great privilege for me to have had so close an involvement with Norman Foster and his team for virtually the whole of the time that the building was constructed. I understand that he spent just a week-end settling on the "vision" of the building he would like to put up, and he sketched it then and there and stuck to this vision right through the project. (As it happened, Caius was planning a new building at much the same time, and it dithered for the better part of two years without giving us any clear idea of what the building was going to look like – what a contrast!) Throughout the project, he always willing to consider new ideas and to listen to problems over which we had concerns. For instance, as originally planned, the lecture rooms in the basement were to have columns supporting the floors above, so blocking the view from some seats. He changed the whole plan so as to suspend the upper floors from above, with the big sloping beams along the north side taking the weight. More often than not, when he came up with a modification the result was not only better all round, but sometimes saved cost as well! Again, the plans as originally drawn had rectangular glass panels, and there would have been (I think) 26 shapes and sizes, but when it was tweaked on a computer it was found that by making one outer wall slightly curved instead of straight, and switching to triangular panels, the building would need only two sizes - triangles and half-triangles. This made huge savings in manufacturing cost, and the diagonal joins also doubled as storm-water channels, a feature he has since used in the Gherkin building in London.

Unfortunately, the building got a bad press when we moved in, largely undeserved in my view. There was, admittedly, a noise problem which was only resolved when we put up the vertical partition separating the library from the public spaces, but I'm afraid that this was largely because he was let down by his acoustics consultant. I think that nowadays users generally think that it is a pretty good place to work in, as I certainly do.

Of course, like all creative people, Norman Foster has some strong views from which it is difficult to get him to shift! We had to accept the grey carpets – he didn't really offer us a choice of colours. He doesn't like his building cluttered up with lockers, etc. and he keeps signage and notices to a minimum. I'm told that there is very little provision for storage, and broom-cupboards, etc. – the open plan approach doesn't allow many nooks and crannies. We have had to add some of the clutter later!